Hey! Welcome back. Today we’re going to explore five things to remember when writing a short story. Short stories are a great way to develop your writing and to find your voice as a writer. Many successful published authors, including Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, started out writing short stories. This was also how they first got published. The beauty of a short story is that only one thing needs to happen and you don’t need too much detail to bring your story to life. Your character may not even get a name and that’s ok because they may not need it!
As a novelist, I used to struggle to pull together a short story, but I knew that future me would be thankful if I persevered. Writing competitions help as they usually have a theme which provides direction for a story (plus the prospect of getting published and sometimes a monetary reward doesn’t hurt). Writing prompts are also a great way to find inspiration. Check out my previous posts for some awesome prompts: 15 Unique Writing Prompts to Spark Your Creativity and 20 Epic Fairy Tale Writing Prompts.
In my final year of my Master of Creative Writing, I did a subject on short stories. We had two major assignments and weekly writing exercises, one of which was to write a piece of micro fiction (under 200 words) based on one of Georges Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. As a fan of the Mafia genre, I selected the fourth situation: Vengeance taken for kin upon kin. To further challenge myself, I linked it to the third situation: Crime pursued by vengeance.
I washed his blood from my hands and watched as the red danced down the drain, the white suds following their traitorous crewmates. My phone was vibrating beside the sink, as it had been for the last hour, Victoria’s name and smiling face flashing at me. It was my favourite photo of her; she’d never smile like that at me again. I swiped my screen, feeling no remorse for what I’d done.
‘Tell me you didn’t do it!’
She was hysterical, worse than when she’d called me this morning. How was it possible that she was more upset by the thought of his death than by his continuous beatings? Black eyes, a broken arm, internal bleeding, and still she wanted to save him.
‘You bring me a problem you don’t ask how I fix it, understand?’
‘He’s the father of my kids, Mario!’
I watched from the bathroom door as his blood soaked through the carpet of my office. I’d need to get it changed. Even in death he pissed me off.
‘Yeah well they’ve got an uncle who loves them and a mother who’s alive. They’ll be fine.’Nathalie Saleeba
The more I learnt, the more I wrote, and the more I enjoyed the process. Our first assessment was to write a story under 1500 words and our second assessment was to develop a book plan for a series of 5 related short stories. This second assessment got me thinking: do people actually want to read a series of related short stories? If yes, is the target audience the same reader who enjoys singular short stories, or someone else entirely? And did this format not make the collection a novel?
Personally, when I read short stories I’m looking for a different experience compared to when I read a novel. I want something I can read in one sitting, perhaps the length of a work commute, lunch break or in the short time I have to unwind before bed. Sometimes I will read a collection of short stories, but the stories are unrelated. I recently finished If It Bleeds and Bazaar of Bad Dreams, both by Stephen King and both collections of unrelated short stories (‘If It Bleeds’ is actually four novellas; works that are too long to be classified as a short story yet not long enough to be labelled as novels). These books also got me thinking: would short story collections work for a writer just starting out, or is their success reserved for authors who have already established themselves as successful?
In Tim Waggoner’s non-fiction work Writing in the Dark, an excellent book on how to write horror, Waggoner discusses finding your niche and asks his readers to consider what their goals are as a writer. Under this section, Waggoner states that if your goal is to make a living as a horror writer, you will need to focus on writing novels and steer away from shorter works. This contributed an answer to my above question, from the perspective of whether or not you can build a financially stable career from short stories (in the horror genre at least)!
‘It’s difficult enough to make a living writing fiction, but it’s virtually impossible to do so by writing shorter-form fiction.’Tim Waggoner
For some writers (those who write paranormal romance or horror for example), anthologies are a great option. This is where authors combine their respective short stories or novellas that may link back to their longer works/series or be standalones. This benefits both the writers and the readers: the writers gain publicity for their individual work and reach a wider audience, and the readers get great reads to enjoy, some extra material to go with their favourite series plus exposure to new authors in the same genre!
The more I practiced writing short stories, the more I enjoyed the process and the more confident I became. Here are five things you should always remember when working on a short story:
- Make sure your characters are believable: Your reader needs to believe that your characters existed before your story begins. This means you need to bring them to life as succinctly as possible.
- The fewer words you can use the better: Cut out anything that isn’t crucial to the story. This includes lengthy world building and detailed character development. They are not necessary.
- Make sure the ending isn’t at the end: In short stories there is a danger that reader engagement will take place after the story has ended. To avoid this, deliver your reveal or climax in the middle of the story so that the reader can consider the situation along with the narrator. Also, remember not to over-complicate. Only one thing needs to happen in a short story.
- Your last line should pack a punch: While your reveal is in the middle of your story, your last line should leave your reader with something to think about. You want them to reflect on the ideas in your story and wonder what it all meant.
- Write long then edit, edit, edit: Write as much as you need to build your story, then chip away at it until you have removed all the embellishments and are left with only the absolutely necessary information. Consider yourself a sculptor!
‘Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.’Ray Bradbury
What’s your opinion on short stories? What do you think about the questions I’ve been mulling over? Drop a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!
Until next time,